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Reflecting on the recent general elections in South Africa, the author argues that there needs to be concerted efforts to building a strong movement that would lead the country towards a process of social transformation after the inevitable collapse of the ruling party.

As the dust settles on the Republic of South Africa’s 6th election, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) faces its deepest crisis since coming to power in 1994. The May 2019 election saw roughly over 17 million voters participate (out of a further 26 million possible voters) in a country whose current population is estimated in excess of 56 million people. These figures, like most modern democracies, stand in context of steadily declining voter participation with 983 155 less voters in comparison to the 2014 election despite the 5 percent increase in the total electorate. [[i]]  

Growing inequality in post-apartheid South Africa holds the country consistently listed, as one of the world’s most divided societies across a spread of metrics. ANC-stalwart Cyril Ramaphosa, entering the presidency in late 2017 through an in-party recall of former President Jacob Zuma over long-standing state corruption allegations, set out to promise the party and country a “New Dawn”. This emphasised cleaning up corruption, ensuring good governance and restoring confidence in international investors.

Ramaphosa’s New Dawn has since been marred by a deepening economic and political crisis most viscerally demonstrated by the collapsing energy parastatal ESKOM, which has left the country in months of load-shedding and blackouts resulting from decades of poor planning, overspending and corruption. Recent electoral gains in representation for opposition parties the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Vryheidsfront Plus [Freedom Front Plus] particularly have set the stage for an explosive term in Parliament for Ramaphosa as he struggles to both define and execute path forward for the ANC and its vision for the country.

Popular intellectual and veteran trade unionist Dinga Sikwebu published a sharp post-elections rebuke titled “2019 elections: The great democratic swindle”[[ii]] cut through analysis on the various gains and losses by individual parties to raise serious questions around un-transparent party funding, marginalisation of the poor and working class and nature of democratic participation under the present social, political and economic realities of the country. In a climate of uncertainty and precarity, Sikwebu urges us to look beyond the temporary comfort of competing populisms to support ongoing demands to expand democratic participation in all spheres of life. 

In engaging with this invitation, instead of indulging in the post-election dysphoria to weigh up the long term viability of various opposition parties and their paths to power, I argue that more attention, debate and consideration needs to be paid to the character and trajectory of the ANC’s inevitable collapse with the intention of building towards a position to seize the latent political energy set to be released at the moment of transition, towards a process of social transformation, that stands a concrete chance and reshaping fundamental relations in our society. To this effect this paper will set out to discuss the following claims:

1. The rightward shift in South African politics is characterised by a de-politicisation of bureaucratic power and a weakening of the role of the state in favour of privatisation.

2. Divergent strategies within the diverse strata of South Africa’s national bourgeoisie have led to an investment strike rendering the prospects of a “patriotic capitalism” impossible.

3. The inevitable collapse of the ANC as the governing polity will be characterised by violence and a constitutional crisis.

4. Facing head on intra working class conflict and deep-rooted social stratification is central to the possibility of forging a new radical social contract that can be robustly defended from externally sponsored agitation.

5. Building on ongoing processes such as the Working Class Summit could supplant the looming transition through the call for a constituent assembly.

In local media, Ramaphosa’s remarks have been likened by dissidents to the sentiments of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who championed a regime of cuts in government spending, mass retrenchment of state employees, among other ‘neoliberal’ reforms. These measures rolled back significant expansions in state provisions of healthcare, public housing and education in the aftermath of World War II, leading to widespread protests and intense political debate among left-wing organisations and intellectuals. Among the sharpest criticism came the voice of popular intellectual Stuart Hall in an essay titled “The Great Moving Right Show”. This famously drew attention to the growing danger of right-wing populism targeting marginalised groups and minorities and criticised the inability of the left to analyse and respond to the unfolding crisis.

Speaking against the widely held view that “uneducated” masses were being hoodwinked by a strategic and opportunistic elite, Hall asserts [on authoritarian populism]: “Its success and effectivity does not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk but in the way that it addresses real problems, real lived experiences to align with its policies and class strategies.”

For South Africa today, particularly in the build up to elections, Hall’s words held significant warnings for all who attempted to understand and respond to the country’s current crisis. The sporadic and inconsistent rhetoric from the ANC on land and nationalisation of key banks and industries should not be seen as evidence of a radicalising ANC, nor as evidence of a confused, detached and desperate party preparing for elections. Instead, it should be understood as part and parcel of the strategy of a decaying ruling party attempting to re-assert itself as representative of “the people”, in order to maintain and expand the wealth of local elites and the international capital and the network of legitimising institutions they depend on.

The emergence of Ramaphosa as the face of the party rested on three populist narratives, which collectively underpin his campaign for a “New Deal”. On the one hand, Ramaphosa is characterised as “The Redeemer” –a moral voice from the anti-apartheid era who is independently wealthy and therefore less likely to steal from state coffers. Ramaphosa, “The Unifier”, is based on a narrative that constructs him as the leader who can make difficult choices, appease foreign investors and isolate opportunistic elements within the ANC under the banner of good governance and inclusive growth. Finally, Ramaphosa “The Reformer” is projected as pragmatic, business-friendly and primed to reshape fledgling state-owned enterprises, through embracing euphemistic concepts such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and openly soliciting foreign direct investment from Western states and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. The spectacle of contemporary South African politics is crafted as a forced tale of a tortured hero, Ramaphosa, gallantly fighting a many headed hydra of boundless public sector corruption, maladministration and civil unrest, altogether staging our very own rendition of the “Great Moving Right Show”.

Ramaphosa’s November 2017 budget announcement [[iii]] delivered under the “New Deal” doctrine, increased value added tax to a record 15 percent, along with cuts in social spending, while assuring the stability of corporate tax at merely 28 percent. Alongside these developments, a coalition of more than 20 organisations under the #ScrapNewLabourLaws campaign called for mass resistance against recent proposed changes to both the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. These changes threatened to limit the right to protest and therein roll back hard-won gains particularly during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

This is deeply ironic, given that Ramaphosa himself spent a significant portion of his career as a trade unionist.[[iv]] The prospect of mass retrenchments following existing and looming privatisation policies along with the growing recognition of the importance of supporting the organisation of precarious workers draws important attention to the need to lend efforts in unifying a deeply fragmented labour movement whose challenges stem well beyond political differences between ANC-allied Congress of South African Trade Unions and the newly formed independent South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

Closely following the recall of former President Zuma, a state commission on the extent of the corruption allegations was established and is popularly regarded as the Zondo Commission [from its presiding judge Raymond Zondo, Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa]. Amidst the most striking revelations shown to the commission, the extent to which corporate corruption was linked to key state institutions came into sharp focus. Scandals once again pivoted around the Gupta family and linked multinational agencies including consulting firm Mckinsey and Company along with auditing firm KPMG. Auditing companies have been exposed as key parts in the chain of corrupt decision-making processes that led to the awarding of state contracts and that legitimised public sector theft. [[v]]

Central to the “New Deal” paradigm heralded by Ramaphosa stands a continuation of the longstanding use of ‘Commissions of Inquiry’ as a means of depoliticising bureaucratic power. The processes, which themselves may yield nuggets of revelations that may be crucial for the movements of the future, ultimately obfuscate the root causes of political crisis and attempt to usurp the role of social movements in holding power to account through the theatre of highly publicised trials weaponising the spectacular to instil fear, apathy and a desire for ‘order’.

Recent developments in the South African energy sector are emblematic of the political and economic crisis the country finds itself in. The economic viability of ESKOM has developed into a full-blown crisis, after reporting making a loss in the 2017/18 financial year of over US$160 million and having lost US$1.39 billion from 2012 to 2018 in irregular expenditure forcing a recent government bailout [[vi]] and investments from the Chinese Development Bank to remain afloat.  [[vii]] The board of ESKOM has historically been marred by political appointments and has resulted in a revolving door of new directors in the last decade. High levels of inefficiency and inadequate planning have collectively resulted in chronic overspending and rising electricity costs, which have caused electricity demand to decrease in recent years.[[viii]] As a result of the crisis between the supply and demand of energy within South Africa, ESKOM has been forced to implement months of load shedding measures hitting working class communities and small enterprises that cannot afford backup generators the hardest.

In the mining sector, the ANC has recently championed a new proposal for a mining charter that pushes primarily for increases in Black ownership, as a counterweight to the hegemonic ownership of White Monopoly Capital accrued historically through mining in particular. At the same political moment, by way of resistance, a landmark legal settlement demanding reparations for miners impacted by scoliosis and tuberculosis [[ix]] is set to force the industry to accept some responsibility for its historical practices. Grassroots resistance to the expansion of mining efforts in Xolobeni village in the Eastern Cape successfully halted developments initiated by Australian conglomerate Mineral Commodities Limited amidst a climate of state repression, private intimidation and assassination of local activists [[x]] and also forced the courts to accept the communities’ right to “Say No” to future developments. [[xi]]  

The mining-energy complex, in modern South African history, has been central to political developments in the country. Today, divergent strategies between two factions of the highly diverse South African national bourgeoisie can be observed through the contestation in this space directly. In 2011, under the leadership of former President Zuma, South Africa was pushed to the brink of entering into what would be the largest tender in the country’s history through the development of a R1 Trillion (US$100 billion) nuclear power programme. [[xii]]  

This despite parastatal Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s own projections of declining electricity demand alongside a slowing economy rendering the project economically unviable without environmental considerations. The deal alongside a string of corruption allegations levied against sections of the ANC, allied with Zuma, and linked to the Gupta family comprised of a web of economic relations in coal and uranium mines, which stood to make great profits. Once challenged by the civil society, as further details of the extent of corruption surfaced, the Zuma faction developed an ideological programme under the banner of “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) linking populist positions on land reform to reconstruct their actions as the behaviour of a patriotic capitalist front bravely standing against the historical enemy of White Monopoly Capital.

On the other hand, upon the defeat of the nuclear deal, and now with the ANC under the leadership of Ramaphosa, ESKOM sought to expand its renewable energy programme through its policy of Independent Power Producers. The path chosen to implement this reprioritisation was summarily criticised and challenged by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), an RET aligned newly formed structure called Transform RSA [Republic of South Africa] and to a lesser extent the EFF, as an attempt to privatise South African energy led by White Monopoly Capital and an allied section of the ANC and Black business elite exemplified by Ramaphosa himself and his brother in-law billionaire Patrice Motsepe.[[xiii]]  

South Africa’s economic woes can, in part, be seen in its slowing economic growth rate, which stood at 0.8 percent in 2018 dropping from approximately 5 percent in 2008. [[xiv]]This slowing economic growth has come amidst a rapidly diminishing manufacturing sector and an economy, which has become highly dependent on the export of raw materials and the profits solicited from services particularly in the financial sector while the state stands as the largest employer. [[xv]]

The paradigm of the National Democratic Revolution, advanced by the South African Communist Party, which hinges on a staged approach to socialist transformation and dependent on industrialist strategies steered by a powerful state bureaucracy—in theory acting to the benefit of the working class as a whole and limiting the growth of national bourgeoisie influence on the economy—remains a popular ideological rhetoric for the ANC’s top brass today. The post-apartheid experience however has demonstrated that the party rhetoric now can do little more than jostle for position between sections of the national bourgeoisie who seek to gain dominion over one another, all of which show little interest and capacity to act independent of the dictatorship of international capital with local White Capital evacuating an expanding array of profits derived from basic needs to the private sector and pumped into international markets.

Ramaphosa’s approach to the land issue exemplified by populist gestures towards the return of the land to the historically dispossessed Black majority in fiery statements delivered to communities across the country in the build up to the election [[xvi]] alongside assurance to foreign investors that the expropriation bill set to be put forward before parliament secures their interests.[[xvii]] In contrast, while national policy—no matter how compromised—takes aim at white large scale farmers, at a community level protests demanding housing and urban land have grabbed centre stage. Actions taking the form of mass township occupations, strikes involving direct action and violent confrontation with state police and the targeting state infrastructure along with demands for access to basic services like water, electricity and housing have brought the country into nearly open rebellion on a weekly basis this year.

In an incident between the communities of Mitchells plain and Siqalo, a neighbouring informal settlement, a strike which began as an action demanding housing and services from the Cape Town city government devolved into bitter and violent tensions between “black” and “coloured” residents leaving one resident dead and two further injured. While media reporting emphasised on the narratives of anti-Black “coloured” residents in permanent conflict with “entitled” and “insurgent” black occupiers, the Muslim Judicial Council, the Housing Assembly, Siqalo community representatives and the Mitchell’s Plain United Residents Association worked hard on the ground to re-centre the demands for basic services and pursuit of a decent life while condemning racism.

The fierce tensions rooted in real, differentiated experiences of marginalisation and oppression in intra-working class struggles such as these require systematic responses that are being bitterly fought and developed by communities themselves and revolutionaries poised at the coalface of community struggles. From this edifice, a new social covenant must be supported to emerge organically from cross-difference participation in struggle and systematised in favour of formulaic and nostalgic appeals to non-racialism and Black consciousness that disguise the reality of existing, changing dynamics which render the realisation of these very ideals impossible.

Easier said than done

Refocusing to the state, Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment policies, part by the government has involved a now long-standing process of political appointments to boards and high-level executive structures of state-owned industries and key private industries, particularly in the mining sector— Black ownership had previously been prohibited and expressly excluded from these positions—creating a layer of elite business people and bureaucrats tightly dependent on their direct relationship to state power. Cyril Ramaphosa himself stands as a testament to this transformation, moving from trade union leader representing mineworkers to one of the wealthiest South Africans with shares in mines and a growing array of private businesses. [[xviii]]  

This isn’t to speak against the concept of affirmative action policies at all, but rather to highlight that their tactical deployment at the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ have introduced a social and political force whose interests deeply shape the current political landscape. More pointedly, the racially charged competition in post-apartheid South Africa evoked financial and skills transfer strikes in an economy still marked by the bloodied stains of centuries of colonialism allowing for masses of capital, consolidated by local elites who are largely white, along with specialised technical skills developed particularly by artisans, technicians and engineers under the numerous sprawling apartheid state owned and supported industries.

Numerous local and international analysts commenting on the unfolding South African crisis [[xix]] criticise Ramaphosa’s ideological incoherence and political double-speak leading up to the election. There is, however, insufficient analytical attention paid to the social, political and economic forces, which have produced a rightward shift in mainstream politics. This shift, partly shrouded by the smokescreen of increasingly aggressive calls for nationalisation from parliament, can be understood as the result of conflict among competing factions of local economic elites and their mutual, but differentiated dependency on international capital.

The rot within the ANC is directly related to the deals, partnerships and compromises forged in the handover from the apartheid regime. The party-led reforms have built a section of the Black elite, which is dependent on increasingly illicit relationships to state power in order to amass wealth. The liberation movement turned political party failed to contain, transform and redistribute the power and resources historically accumulated by the minority White elite, which themselves now seek to consolidate in a complex and poorly understood web of private institutions that have readily expanded into the rest of the African continent.

The growing clarity of this reality among radical and progressive worker and community organisations has become increasingly sharp, culminating in an ongoing workers’ summit process, led by the SAFTU, and now by the formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Worker’s Party (SRWP) largely, but not exclusively devolving from the support of the country’s largest trade union, NUMSA. With the imminent threats to privatise ESKOM [[xx]], alongside the failure of the SRWP to secure representation in parliament, signals to the difficult work that lies ahead of militants and trade unions to defend jobs and livelihoods at the point of production. This happens while also poor South Africans are facing fierce community struggles at home, at the point of social reproduction, with rising water and electricity tariffs biting into unlivable wages and the dwindling value of social grant schemes. 

While the political climate across communities in South Africa grows ever more tense, the prelude to a violent collapse of the ANC has begun to play out within the party itself at a municipal level with over 90 politicians, largely from the ruling party, reportedly having been killed just since 2016. [[xxi]] Competition over leadership roles, linked to access to masses of state funds and ‘tenderpreneur’ networks have increasingly led to deadly battles for power. It appears more than likely that once the ANC reaches a point where it can no longer control the syndicates operating within it, the party will resort to violence to protect their interests and demand immunity if necessary.

Following from this, I argue, the vacuum created by the collapse of the ANC, at the moment of their inevitable election loss, could be filled by supplanting a trajectory towards “elite transition” of an incoming opposition attempting party (seizing power in 10-15 years through a slight majority) by instead positioning a broad front of left social forces to call for a constituent assembly and the redrafting of the constitution, which reflect an advanced set of transitional democratic demands, notably including requirements on the declaration of party funding, in an open and highly participative process.

Mass protest action demanding basic service delivery to working class areas along with labour struggles in the workplace combating job insecurity, unlivable wages and countless other demands remain clear driving forces animating Black radical politics within the country. The prospects for political renewal, the building of viable democratic and inclusive organisations, and the elusive dream of an equal society lie in the streets, workplaces and hearts of ordinary people and their urgency to end our “Great Moving Right Show” through the revitalisation of a struggle for freedom.

* Brian Kamanzi is an activist, student and writer based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.